We Need to Make Education a Political Issue
Raising children who can think and play a meaningful role in the world is at the core of a good education system.
When I was doing my masters in history at the University of Oxford, UK, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan broke out. Students all over the world, including me, protested. But nothing changed really. It was then that I realized that to change people’s world view, you need to change the education that shapes it in the first place. While at one level we have to work on improving structures, systems, politics, the economy and so on, at the centre of all this is the human being and how that human being thinks, chooses to act in the world and reacts are going to be determined by the education we give them in the classroom.
So when I started working with government schools in Delhi, it was quite obvious that we first needed to fix the classroom. I still remember the stench of the toilets that hit me when I walked in through the school gates. There was no running water, no drinking water, the windows were broken, the lights dysfunctional, the white fans had turned black with dirt. Several girl students told me that they avoided using the toilets in school. The first year and a half was spent cleaning up the schools; right from thinking about the number of bottles of disinfectant a school needs in a month to the required number of sanitation workers for a given number of students. It made me understand that policymaking is largely commonsensical; if government schools in this country are not changing, it is not because it is difficult to improve them, but because no one cares or wants to.
One key way to bring about long-term transformation of educational institutions is to get parents involved. Governments may come and go but it is the parents who will always care the most about how a school is run. School management committees (SMC) are mandated under the Right to Education Act, 2009. An SMC is a body consisting of parents and teachers, and it is supposed to monitor and assist in the affairs of the school. By encouraging parents to participate in these committees, we are able to bridge the gap between the government, the school and the community. Similarly, holding regular parent–teacher meetings allows parents greater participation in their children’s education.
Another major stakeholder in this process is the teacher. Generally, government schoolteachers tend to be highly qualified because they come through a rigorous selection process. Unfortunately, the atmosphere in government schools has not been conducive to teaching and learning for years. Providing the right environment in Delhi has helped many teachers, who already had the potential, to excel. In my experience, paying attention to teachers’ needs—this can be as simple as providing them with comfortable furniture—and investing in their training gives them a sense of pride in being a government schoolteacher. Teachers are also human. You can’t always expect teachers to treat their stu-dents with respect and dignity if they themselves are not treated with respect and dignity by the system.
It’s only when you have these basics in place can you address the real goal of education, the core of which is to raise children who can think, reflect and play a meaningful role in the world. We often forget that education is more than just about getting good marks and jobs: It is about the kind of human beings that are produced by the system. That’s why we came up with the happiness curriculum (see box below). Having interventions that focus on the child’s needs instead of fixating on completing a syllabus is also an important aspect. For example, and this is well-researched by global research organizations such as Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), grouping children as per their learning levels instead of their age helps them learn faster.
All of this requires rational thinking and empathy on the part of administrations. In my opinion, the day political parties realize that they can win elections riding on their education manifesto, they will allot greater budgetary funds to it. Currently, parties think they can win on the basis of caste and religion and by distributing money and liquor. Politicians pocket all the money meant for public policy and then buy votes with it during elections. If education as an agenda leads to electoral success then, I am 100 per cent sure, all parties will pay attention to it. We need to make education a political issue.
—As told to Blessy Augustine
The Happiness Curriculum
The Delhi government has been pushing the envelope in education in the capital’s public schools, and with positive results. Aiming to depart from a system that stresses on bookish knowledge and rote learning, Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s education minister, along with chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, introduced a ‘happiness curriculum’ in July this year, in the presence of the Dalai Lama.
The happiness classes will see students of nursery to class VIII spend the first half an hour to 45 minutes of each school day meditating, listening to inspiring stories, learning mental exercises and doing activities that don’t involve any textbooks.
Inspired by Bhutan’s gross national happiness index as an alternative to measuring human development with its ‘happiness-infused curriculum’, the programme is believed to impact 10 lakh students and 50,000 teachers in Delhi. Who knows, if successful, it could become a model for other states too!
Atishi Marlena is an advisor on education to the current deputy chief minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia.